Damien Hardwick speaking to his assistant coaches at three-quarter time of the match between Gold Coast and North Melbourne at TIO Stadium in round nine, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

SIMON Lloyd was part of a group of football managers touring the AFL's ARC facility last year when he was invited to try on a pair of virtual reality goggles that the League's umpiring department was using.

Instantly, the experienced coach and administrator was transported to the MCG, where a virtual AFL game was taking place around him and he was being prompted to make split second umpiring decisions. 

Intrigued by what he was seeing, Lloyd's mind went straight to coaching. A lateral thinker with experience at almost all levels of coaching, he saw possibility in how the technology could help players in the future. 

"Imagine placing the VR goggles on with the ball in your hands and it might be a five-versus-four scenario where you need to find the spare player on your team and make that decision quickly under extreme virtual pressure," Lloyd told AFL.com.au

"Coaches currently do this on-field while being monitored closely by sports scientists … but soon coaches may have the opportunity to complete repetition after repetition of specific scenarios in a controlled environment.

"Injured players will soon be able to sit in a chair with VR goggles on and rehearse a stoppage scenario with teammates running left, right and centre that they otherwise wouldn't be able to participate in. 

"Just think of some of the benefits this would provide in optimising the speed and accuracy of decisions and for those returning from long-term injuries."

A general view of the ARC (AFL Review Centre) at AFL House on September 2, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Lloyd, who left Geelong this year after a successful period as general manager of football and is viewed in the industry as a club CEO candidate, believes clubs are working closely with universities on how to utilise VR as a coaching tool. 

He can see a future for the technology in helping players rehearse in-game scenarios like stoppages, field kicking and goal kicking, with the gaming industry and the AFL itself likely to drive the technology. 

While Lloyd saw exciting possibilities everywhere, including lateral ideas like the use of robots as training dummies, he said the best coaches would be those who utilised the technology without diminishing coaching foundations. 

An example of technology being used well was the introduction of drones at training, allowing coaches to capture vision from multiple angles and then using it to coach players in real time via a laptop or the scoreboard. 

"The sweet spot will be in effectively using these as tools to advance and optimise teaching methods," Lloyd said, warning clubs against "over indexing" on the latest technology. 

"While technology is important and will advance the game, we cannot diminish the foundations and art of coaching, and the ability of our coaches to continue to invest in the development of athletes holistically."

Simon Lloyd looks on during Geelong's round five match against Hawthorn at the MCG on April 18, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Former New Zealand cricket coach Ashley Ross is an experienced coach who now works as a coach developer within multiple leagues, including the AFL through his work with Adelaide.

A "coach's coach", he works with the national netball and water polo teams, the paralympic table tennis coaches, and a variety of other individuals at national and club level through his business Coach Learning Solutions. 

One of the coaching roles that has mostly been sacrificed in the AFL through soft cap changes is the head of coaching, and Ross believes introducing a club figure who can help mentor coaches should be part of the industry's plans. 

"The future of coaching for the AFL is truly understanding the value of having someone who can step outside and just helps coaches reflect on their coaching," Ross told AFL.com.au

"In the English Football Association, they obviously have the Premier League, but they have 96 clubs who are in the in the Football Association through a number of divisions. 

"Every one of those clubs has what they call the EHOC, which is an elite head of coaching, and that's all paid for by the Premier League. 

"They see such value in it that every one of the 96 clubs has someone in this role, but at the moment, coach development is scarce in terms of professional sports."


While many coaches in the AFL seek out individual mentors, Adelaide has also introduced Ross as an embedded member of its program to work with coach Matthew Nicks and his team of assistant and development coaches, offering an additional resource. 

Ross will observe things like training drills, meetings, and the coaches box on game day before having discussions with coaches and asking the right questions to help them improve their craft. 

Ross said his experience in sports other than Australian football was an advantage when it came to helping Nicks and his team in a role that could become more widespread in the future.

"Every conversation with our coaches at the Crows, I preface with 'you know that I know nothing about football', so we talk about learning, learning environments, and how you communicate the intentionality around coaching," Ross said. 

"There's a statement that goes around high performance in coach development that coaches get hired for their Xs and Os but they get fired for their communication and relationships.

"The thing that will differentiate the great coaches is how much they can actually develop a great relationship and draw their individuals into the coaching magic … the art of coaching, rather than the science of coaching."

Matthew Nicks addresses Adelaide players during the match between the Crows and Brisbane at Adelaide Oval in round nine, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Coaches get excited when bouncing around big ideas about the future of their industry, but an inevitable reminder about the football department soft cap – and the spending restrictions it places on coaches – can spoil the fun. 

While coaching departments took a significant financial hit during the pandemic, AFL Coaches Association boss Alistair Nicholson believes the industry is now at a point where it can start clawing back some of the resources needed to be progressive and push for cutting-edge innovation.

"We're trying to get back to the pre-COVID mentality where coaches were really striving to be world's best practice and really innovative and pushing the envelope with what they're doing," Nicholson told AFL.com.au

"I think that's right where we are now as a sport and it's a timely conversation to ask, 'What are we investing in', and 'How do we get that edge and how do we make this person better?' We're just starting to push that again."

The future of coaching for Nicholson is one where broader coaching teams are more valuable than ever and assistant and development coaches are recognised increasingly for their specialised skills and important role in shaping footballers off-field. 


It could lead to new coaching structures in the next decade where the senior coach moves closer towards the manager role seen in global sports like soccer. 

"We could move that way, and I think an element of that exists. The senior coaches are very much almost now managers and will say that they can't do what they do without their assistant and development coaches," Nicholson said. 

"The leadership is critical and developing the environment, the culture and the relationships. But the group underneath is also really critical.

"So I see the value and the reputation of assistant and development coaches in our system hopefully growing in stature in the next 10 years.

"But as the system becomes more and more sophisticated, it's important that the support mechanisms and the resources and the remuneration and the termination clauses keep pace with that."

Damien Hardwick speaking to his assistant coaches at three-quarter time of the match between Gold Coast and North Melbourne at TIO Stadium in round nine, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

A left-field idea that the AFLCA has discussed is the possibility of a long-term senior coach stepping away from their role temporarily in the same manner as Collingwood football manager Graham Wright this year. 

It's preliminary thinking, but Nicholson was conscious that the AFL coaching industry provided less opportunities than overseas sports for second chances when a senior coach finishes at his club. 

When it comes to exploring overseas ideas and developments in sport, the AFLCA's manager of coach development, Ron Watt, is important in helping the League's most high-profile figures coordinate their off-season study tours.

Among the usual visits to NFL and NBA clubs, coaches in recent years have included everything from the Navy Seals and LA County Fire Department to business professors at Stanford University on their itineraries. 

Alastair Clarkson at Stanford University in California as part of a collegiate sporting programs tour in December, 2021. Picture: Supplied

When it comes to the next edge in coaching, they have looked into tackling technique, coaching the mind, educating techniques, and how to structure academies. 

"One of the huge benefits of our study tours is for our coaches to understand that they are at the elite level of their profession," Watt said. 

"You can take them all over the place and they can talk with the biggest names in any sport and hold their own and contribute.

"They're always looking for whatever might give them an edge as well as your basics in how do you set up training drills, how do you align your team, how do you sell a message, and how do you bring groups together?"

Gold Coast assistant coach Shaun Grigg, 36, who spent four years with Geelong before joining Damien Hardwick at Gold Coast, has benefited from overseas trips, including a 10-day visit to the Baltimore Ravens. 

Passionate about innovation, the highly rated assistant saw technology that he hopes could one day help AFL clubs, including advancements in how some games could be coded for coaches.

Shaun Grigg during Gold Coast's training session at Austworld Centre Oval on February 27, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Like Lloyd, Ross, Nicholson and Watt, however, he believes the future of great coaching will remain centred in how players can be guided to be the best versions of themselves and inspired on the field. 

"I'm a coach who works for the players, so my job is to have them leave not just as better footballers or better individual players but better young men," Grigg told AFL.com.au.

"So I'm always available and that's a core value of mine in coaching, to help guide the players through on-field situations and off-field situations. 

"You can have the best intellect, the greatest plans, or the best strategy, but you need to get every individual to buy in and believe that they can be involved in something greater or something special. 

"That's probably one of the lessons I've learned along the way. Ultimately, the players are not robots."

This is part of a series in which AFL.com.au looks at the future of football from different angles. The first instalment, looking at the future for players, was published last month.